The Milwaukee Brewers’ minor league system has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last two years. At the beginning of the 2015 season, most outlets had the Brewers ranked within the bottom five to ten farm systems among the 30 major league teams. The direction of the team has since changed from making an annual half-hearted effort to “go for it” to a complete rebuild, and Doug Melvin and David Stearns have quickly traded almost an entire major league roster between the two of them.
Since July of 2015, Milwaukee has dealt 17 players with major league experience (so don’t give me any of this half-hearted rebuild stuff – that’s an incredible amount of player movement even if they keep Ryan Braun) and re-stocked the cupboard with a bevy of strong prospects. The Brewers added two highly rated draft classes on top of that under the supervision of Ray Montgomery. In fact, 19 of the Brewers top 30 prospects as rated by MLB Pipeline have been added to the system within the last 16 months, since the 2015 Draft took place. The Brewers farm system has gone from one of the worst ranked to the #1 system in baseball, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be enough for many fans of our local nine. I generally listen to a lot of local sports talk during the day (yes, it’s admittedly a flaw of mine) and “The Brewers still don’t have that future ace!” is a common complaint. “There’s no middle-of-the-order bats like Braun and Fielder coming up!” is another oft-heard refrain from the callers and talking heads over the airwaves. The perception is that the Brewers are sorely lacking these two types of franchise cornerstones, so let’s dig a little deeper to see how they compare to the other teams around the league. For this exercise we’ll be using MLB Pipeline’s rankings and grades (based on the 20-80 scouting scale), mostly due to their eminently user-friendly interface.
First, we’ll take a look at the pitching prospects ranked in the top 100, including grades and potential risk:
|1||Nationals||Lucas Giolito||65||High Risk (had TJ)|
|13||Padres||Anderson Espinosa||55||High Risk (age)|
|30||Red Sox||Jason Groome*||55||High Risk (age)|
|32||Dodgers||Jose De Leon||55||Velocity?|
|33||Brewers||Josh Hader*||55||Changeup? Control?|
|34||Rockies||Jeff Hoffman||55||High Risk (had TJ)|
|35||Twins||Tyler Jay*||55||College Relief|
|36||Marlins||Braxton Garrett*||55||High Risk (age)|
|37||Nationals||Reynaldo Lopez||55||Changeup? Control?|
|38||Rockies||Riley Pint||55||High Risk (age), Control?|
|39||Rays||Brent Honeywell||55||Curve? (4th pitch)|
|44||Reds||Amir Garrett*||55||Inconsistent secondaries|
|51||Brewers||Luis Ortiz||55||High Risk (injury)|
|53||Brewers||Phil Bickford||55||Changeup? Control?|
|57||White Sox||Carson Fulmer||55||Control?|
|60||Braves||Colby Allard*||55||High Risk (age)|
|63||Indians||Brady Aiken*||55||High Risk (Had TJ)|
|65||Tigers||Matt Manning||55||Changeup? High Risk (age)|
|67||Red Sox||Michael Kopech||55||Control? Suspension|
|69||Astros||Forrest Whitley||55||High Risk (age)|
|70||Astros||David Paulino||55||Changeup? High Risk (Had TJ)|
|72||Pirates||Mitch Keller||55||High Risk (injury)|
|75||Nationals||Erik Fedde||55||High Risk (Had TJ)|
|76||Blue Jays||Sean Reid-Foley||55||Control? Curve? (4th pitch)|
|77||Braves||Ian Anderson||55||High Risk (age)|
|81||Cardinals||Luke Weaver||55||Slider? Curve?|
|90||Braves||Mike Soroka||55||High Risk (Age)|
|95||Indians||Tristan McKenzie||55||High Risk (age)|
|97||Cubs||Dylan Cease||55||Changeup? High Risk (Had TJ)|
|100||Rockies||German Marquez||55||Control? (in zone)|
If the Brewers are missing a “future ace” in their system, it’s only because just about every other team in Major League Baseball is missing one, too. According to Pipeline’s overall grades, there is one clear-cut top pitching prospect: Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. He has the highest overall grade at 65, an 80 fastball and a plus-plus curve to go along with above-average grades for his changeup and command. He’s as close to a sure thing as you’ll find in the minor leagues as far as pitchers go, and even he has the skeleton in his closet of being a Tommy John survivor (though he hasn’t had any major health concerns since his surgery in 2012).
Once you get past Giolito, there is a small second tier of Alex Reyes of the Cardinals and Tyler Glasnow of the Pirates graded at 60 overall, based mostly on their 70 and 75 fastball grades, respectively. Both pitchers have a plus curve and average change, but below-average grades (45) for control will serve as roadblocks to reaching that true “ace” level of performance and will need to be improved.
After that, there are another 39 arms graded at 55 overall to round out the rest of the top 100 prospects. You like players that are lacking an average-or-better third pitch? There’s ten of them. How about about young, high-risk arms with big potential? Also ten of them. Tommy John survivors? Six. Pitchers with all the “stuff” but need to improve their control? 18 different arms could fit that bill. There’s some crossover in the categories here, of course, but I think you get the idea. The Brewers don’t have a “surefire future ace” because beyond *maybe* Giolito, no one with that profile currently exists in the minor leagues.
What should be encouraging, however, is how many times the Brewers appear on the list of top pitchers. Only the Braves (4) have more arms that appear among the top 100 prospects than the three that Milwaukee, Colorado, Washington, and Houston each possess. Between the trio of Josh Hader, Luis Ortiz, and Phil Bickford, the Brewers have as good or better of a chance of hitting on a front-line starter as just about any other organization in the big leagues.
The prototypical “middle-of-the-order bat” is also quite a rare commodity around the minor leagues these days. When I think of the archetypal cleanup hitter, the first quality that comes to mind is plus power. As it turns out, there’s not a lot of 60 power grades within the top 100:
|16||Red Sox||Rafael Devers||60||55|
According to Pipeline’s evaluators, only thirteen players in the top 100 possess the requisite power to hit in the middle of the lineup. Of course, that’s not the only quality that a Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder type of hitter boasts. A lineup needs someone in the middle of it who’ll make enough contact to fully utilize that power and drive in runs, so let’s limit the list to players with 60 power and at least a 55 hit tool, which roughly translates to the ability to consistently hit .270+:
|16||Red Sox||Rafael Devers||60||55|
That’s five players. There are only five prospects in the game right now that profile as model cleanup hitters with at least plus power and above-average hitting (and Kevin Maitan of the Braves is 16 years old and therefore obviously an extreme risk case). And wouldn’t you know it, one of those five players, Lewis Brinson, happens to play in Milwaukee’s minor league system.
Developing high school and college players into even fringe major league players is no small feat. Only about 20 percent of minor leaguers will ever get a chance to appear in the big leagues, and even then success is rare. For example, 66 percent of the nearly 19,000 all-time major league players have accrued between -1.0 and +1.0 wins above replacement.
Franchise cornerstone-type profiles are almost non-existent at the minor league level, so don’t fret if you aren’t seeing that surefire ace or the next Ryan Braun down on the farm right now. Take solace in the fact that since the Brewers have stuffed their system with so much talent, the odds are looking about as good as any organization’s that a couple of those prospects hit their 90th percentile projections and become the cornerstones of the next great Brewers’ core.